First, let’s set the mood, shall we?
“Oh! Mr. Knightley, one moment more; something of consequence — so shocked! Jane and I are both so shocked about the apples!”
“What is the matter now?”
“To think of your sending us all your store apples. You said you had a great many, and now you have not one left. We really are so shocked! Mrs. Hodges may well be angry. William Larkins mentioned it here. You should not have done it, indeed you should not. Ah! he is off. He never can bear to be thanked. But I thought he would have staid now, and it would have been a pity not to have mentioned — Well, (returning into the room,) I have not been able to succeed. Mr. Knightley cannot stop. He is going to Kingston. He asked me if he could do any thing — ”
“Yes,” said Jane, “we heard his kind offers, we heard every thing.” – Emma, Chapter 28
Mr. Knightley, quite arguably Jane Austen’s most perfect gentleman, shows his generosity frequently throughout Emma, but this scene in which he can’t bear Miss Bates’s grateful verbosity may be one that shows his true qualities. Yes, he wants to help. No, he doesn’t want to hear about it ad nauseam. Maybe Miss Bates gets on his nerves too, and being Knightley, he gets away with leaving her leaning out that window and talking to thin air.
Who knows for sure?
By the way, did you notice the little bit of snark from Miss Fairfax at the end of that quote?
Thus is the genius of Jane Austen’s Emma: delightfully busy dialogue that seems to go on saying nothing until, all of of sudden, it does. So sly and subtle are the messages, you’re likely to miss them the first time. I know I did.
Today in honor of the loquacious Miss Bates, #JaneWithATwist presents a dissertation on a holiday libation that has its roots in Austen’s homeland. It also has apples, and thus is a tribute to Gentleman George Knightley.
“Middle English wæs hæil ‘be in (good) health!’: from Old Norse ves heill (compare with hail2). The drinking formula wassail (and the reply drinkhail ‘drink good health’) were probably introduced by Danish-speaking inhabitants of England, and then spread, so that by the 12th century the usage was considered by the Normans to be characteristic of Englishmen.
In cider producing regions, the tradition varied, and was known as the wassailing of trees:
…it was the custom for the Devonshire people on the eve of Twelfth Day to go after supper into the orchard with a large milk-pan full of cyder with roasted apples in it. Each person took what was called a clayen cup, i.e. an earthenware cup full of cyder, and standing under each of the more fruitful trees, sung —
“Health to thee, good apple-tree,
Well to bear, pocket-fulls, hat-fulls,
After drinking part of the contents of the cup, he threw the rest, with the fragments of the roasted apples, at the trees, amid the shouting of the company. Another song sung on such occasions was
“Here’s to thee, old apple-tree,
Whence thou may’st bud, and whence thou may’st blow,
And whence thou may’st bear apples enow
Hats full! caps full!
And my pockets full, too, huzza!”
Wassailing goes back to pre-Christian times in a tradition meant to bring luck for the coming year. Wassail gets its name from the Old English term “waes hael”, meaning “be well”. At the start of each year, the Saxon lord of the manor would shout ‘waes hael’. The assembled crowd would reply ‘drinc hael’, meaning ‘drink and be healthy’. In cider producing regions, the wassailers went from door to door, with a wassail bowl filled with spiced ale, and sang and drank to the health of those they visited. In return people in the houses gave them drink, money and Christmas food. Traditionally Wassailing was held on Old ‘Twelvy’ Night, before the Georgian Calendar aligned the calendar year to the solar year. The true date for Wassailing, therefore, was the 17th of January.”
The thing about wassail is that there are as many recipes as there are words uttered by Miss Bates on two pages of Emma.
First, a traditional recipe…
Here’s a nonalcoholic version:
- 5 to 6 small to medium honey crisp (or Fuji or McIntosh) apples, cored
- ½ cup light brown sugar
- ½ cup dark brown sugar
- 2 cups Madeira
- 2 bottles (22 4/10 ounces) London Pride Ale
- 4 bottles (48 ounces) Strongbow English Cider
- 1 cup apple cider
- 12 whole cloves
- 12 whole allspice berries
- 2 cinnamon sticks, 2 inches long
- 2 strips orange peel, 2 inches long
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- Heat oven to 350 degrees. Place apples in a 9-by-9-inch glass baking dish. Spoon light and dark brown sugar into center of each apple, dividing sugar evenly among them. Pour 1 cup water into bottom of dish and bake until tender, about 1 hour.
- Meanwhile, pour Madeira, ale and English and apple ciders into a large slow cooker or heavy pot. Place cloves, allspice, cinnamon and orange peel into cheesecloth, tie shut with kitchen twine and add to slow cooker or pot along with ginger and nutmeg. Set slow cooker to medium, or place pot over low heat. Gently simmer for about 1 hour, while apples bake, or longer if desired.
- Add liquid from the baking dish and stir to combine. Using tongs, transfer apples into slow cooker or pot to garnish. Reduce heat. Ladle hot wassail into heatproof cups to serve.
Remember, when you run out of apples, the most important thing is to…